Civilizations: A Novel (Hardcover)

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Civilizations: A Novel By Laurent Binet, Sam Taylor (Translated by) Cover Image
By Laurent Binet, Sam Taylor (Translated by)
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Staff Reviews

A brilliant, deeply satisfying work of alternate history, and a stunning pastiche of source materials. Is this... real? Certainly not, but Binet's sterling prose and assured narration gives you plenty of reason to doubt.

Follow an intrepid band of Greenlanders after a tribal dispute sends them fleeing south -- told effortlessly in the style of the Icelandic sagas.

Then the voyages of Columbus, related through his diaries, where we witness his witless downfall at the hands of the local population -- included a fortune-favored young girl with an outsized role to play in Binet's reckoning: the princess Higuenamota.

When civil war breaks out in the Incan Empire (as it did in our history) between Huascar and Atahualpa, rather than preceding their defeat at the hands of the Spanish, it sends Atahualpa and his forces on an expedition across the great ocean -- towards the fabled kingdom of legend of which Columbus once spoke.

And so the New World is discovered, by the Incas, when they land in Lisbon.

Thrust into the crucible of 16th century Europe, Atahualpa and his people play a pivotal role in the major events of the day -- the Spanish Inquisition, the Protestant Reformation and the wars of King Charles, among many others.

At every turn Binet lets his marvelous account be informed by real characters and events, and reminiscent of Dante casting his contemporaries into the various depths of Hell, Binet finds appropriate damnation for many of our history's villains.

Such a rewarding read, full of singular moments that had me closing the book suddenly, looking up to see if anyone else (I was alone) had registered what I'd just read, cackling, and carrying on. The strong premise is what got me to start reading, but the quality of the work and the care of its construction is what had me tearing through it in a weekend, and what has me recommending it so strongly to you now.

--Matt, Longfellow Books

— From Matt Recommends!


An ambitious and highly entertaining novel of revisionist history from the author of the international bestseller HHhH, Laurent Binet's Civilizations is nothing less than a strangely believable counterfactual history of the modern world, fizzing with ideas about colonization, empire-building, and the eternal human quest for domination. It is an electrifying novel by one of Europe's most exciting writers.

Freydis is a woman warrior and leader of a band of Viking explorers setting out to the south. They meet local tribes, exchange skills, are taken prisoner, and get as far as Panama. But nobody ultimately knows what became of them.

Fast forward five hundred years to 1492 and we're reading the journals of Christopher Columbus, mid-Atlantic on his own famous voyage of exploration to the Americas, dreaming of gold and conquest. But he and his men are taken captive by Incas. Even as their suffering increases, his faith in his superiority, and in his mission, is unshaken.

Thirty years later, Atahualpa, the last Inca emperor, arrives in Europe in the ships stolen from Columbus. He finds a continent divided by religious and dynastic quarrels, the Spanish Inquisition, Luther's Reformation, capitalism, the miracle of the printing press, endless warmongering between the ruling monarchies, and constant threat from the Turks. But most of all he finds downtrodden populations ready for revolution. Fortunately, he has a recent bestseller as a guidebook to acquiring power—Machiavelli's The Prince. The stage is set for a Europe ruled by Incas and Aztecs, and for a great war that will change history forever.

About the Author

Laurent Binet was born in Paris, France, in 1972. His first novel, HHhH, was named one of the fifty best books of 2015 by The New York Times and received the Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman. He is a professor at the University of Paris III, where he lectures on French literature. His other novels include The Seventh Function of Language and Civilizations.

Sam Taylor has written for The Guardian, Financial Times, Vogue and Esquire, and has translated such works as the award-winning HHhH by Laurent Binet, and the internationally-bestselling The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair by Joël Dicker.

Praise For…

“At once a profoundly thoughtful book and a very playful one . . . Civilizations is a page-turner. Credit here goes to both Binet and his translator, Sam Taylor, whose English prose is clipped, opinionated, and vivid . . . Civilizations is a serious success, in every sense of the word serious. If you read one novel this fall, make it this.”
—Lily Meyer, NPR

“Glorious . . . Beneath the simple pleasure of a good story well told—and superbly translated by Sam Taylor—runs Binet’s signature brand of high-concept playfulness . . . He is a writer as interested in history as he is in playing with it, and a joker of the most intellectual variety . . . [Civilizations] is his best book yet: the work of a major writer just hitting his stride.”
—Tim Smith-Laing, The Telegraph (Best Books of the Year)

“An alternate history novel for the ages.”
—K.W. Colyard, Bustle (Most Anticipated)

Civilizations exists on a whole different tier of ambition . . . You can sense how much fun Binet is having, rearranging the cultural collage and inverting the power dynamics.”
—Michael LaPointe, The Times Literary Supplement

“Tremendous fun . . . A world-historical version of the parlour game where you assemble a fantasy dinner party from the past.”
—Sam Leith, The Guardian

“In a mix of historical characters (including Columbus and Cervantes) and fictional ones, Binet really lets himself imagine another world so different from our own, and it’s easy to get lost in his storytelling.”
—Emily Burack, Alma (Best Books of Fall)

“A bold and thrilling experiment in counterfactual history from a masterful storyteller.”
—Ángel Gurría-Quintana, Financial Times

“This translation of Binet’s ambitious work imagines a fascinating alternate universe where colonialism turned out rather differently . . . Recommended for all fans of what-ifs in history.”
—Sarah Rice, Booklist

“A daring and often delightful counterfactual history of transatlantic conquest . . . [Civilizations] ingeniously configures a new framework of colonialism, with Mexico dominating the new world. Binet delights with his imaginative powers.”
Publishers Weekly

Product Details
ISBN: 9780374600815
ISBN-10: 0374600813
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication Date: September 14th, 2021
Pages: 320
Language: English